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SEPTA staffing: How hiring affects reliability - and rider happiness

SEPTA's railroad riders find some train conductors indifferent and uninformed. As it happens, rail workers say that's in part because of their own frustrations. New hires, and a reset of worker and management relations, may be part of the solution for staff and passengers.

Conductor Wayne Smith checks tickets on the Media/Elwyn R3 line into the city Friday October 27, 2017.
Conductor Wayne Smith checks tickets on the Media/Elwyn R3 line into the city Friday October 27, 2017.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Nicole Bojko was on her way home from work when her train overshot her stop, Torresdale Station, coming to a screeching halt. It could not back up, and passengers had to get off at the next stop, where they were hustled onto a train on the other side of the tracks. Bojko said she asked a conductor repeatedly whether the train would return her to Torresdale, but he ignored her. She boarded the train and hoped.

Riders were "unsure of what's going on, and to me it was upsetting that they wouldn't answer my question," said Bojko, 26, who works in technical support and rides SEPTA Regional Rail to Suburban Station every weekday. "That's something I would get fired for, if I ignored somebody like that."

Issues with communication have been among the top complaints from riders — but they aren't the only ones who are frustrated. Some conductors said it's difficult to update passengers when they themselves don't have accurate information. Conductors are party to radio traffic between dispatchers and engineers, but the chatter can be confusing and difficult to interpret.

"SEPTA does tell us to keep the passenger informed, but if nobody tells us what's going on, how am I supposed to relay that to a passenger?" said one conductor who requested anonymity so he could speak frankly about management.

While riders chafe at poor communication and complain of indifferent and uninformed conductors, SEPTA's workforce says these problems are byproducts of their own difficulties on a railroad that has seen shrinking manpower and growing ridership in recent years. That left trains understaffed and crews overworked.

SEPTA's engineers have historically called their managers "the goons," a moniker that spoke to the deep level of distrust between management and workers. As much as train cars and railway signals, the relationship with engineers and conductors is a part of railroad operations SEPTA has sought to repair in the past year.

To address some of the riders' complaints, workers and managers face the difficult task of turning around their workplace's culture. It's a slow process, with both sides burdened by decades of bad blood and resentment. Stress, frustration, and uncertain schedules have contributed to a morale problem that makes some workers unmotivated to put the riders first, leaders say.

"There's a 'not my job' syndrome" among workers when it comes to the railroad as a whole," said Matt Mitchell, vice president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, a regional public transportation advocacy group with connections to rail workers. That sense of disaffection comes in part, because for too long managers have not sought staff input, he said: They don't ask, "What can you do to help these things run more reliably?"

The agency has made significant progress in the last year, according to interviews with managers and union leaders conducted by The Inquirer and Daily News. This week, we are reviewing the steps taken to improve Regional Rail service over the past year for its approximately 63,000 daily riders. (Read part onepart two, and part three.) A year ago, SEPTA officials said a lack of manpower, in part stemming from a slew of retirements, played a role in making schedules unreliable. Since then, staffing numbers are up and train cancellations are down.

SEPTA's first step to warm a chilly relationship with workers came last year with the creation of an independent Railroad Operations division that separated the rail service from the city transit division, which has vastly different concerns. Michael Dobson, the 33-year SEPTA veteran tapped to head it, communicates daily with union leaders, gives his phone number to rank and file workers, and seeks worker feedback on new schedules — all ways to draw on workers' years of expertise and experience. Although years of adversarial relations can't change overnight, union leaders say the outreach is a marked change from the way they used to interact with management.

Addressing a personnel shortage has also been an issue; stressed workers have historically called out sick with short notice or started train trips late because they didn't have enough time to prepare for the route. Each train typically aims for a crew of four — an engineer, who drives the train, and three conductors, who collect fares and respond to passengers. Having a full crew, which generally means one head conductor and two assistants, helps ensure the trains run on time.

In the past year, SEPTA has bolstered its ranks with 60 new assistant-conductor hires. By next spring, it hopes to hit its target of 213 engineers. Because aspiring head conductors and engineers must work as assistants first, those hires could beef up future head conductor ranks; SEPTA is short its budgeted target of 273 by 24.

SEPTA officials claim trains can manage with one conductor and one engineer. But conductors say working solo is overwhelming.

"With head count now going up we should in the next year start seeing improvements," said Don Hill, of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

Still, hiring so far has already yielded real benefits for riders. Train cancellations due to manpower issues are significantly down as a result: In the last six months of 2016, staffing problems were the cause of two-thirds of cancelled trains, a trend highlighted by the Inquirer in a December report. In the first six months of 2017, they caused less than one-third.

Conductors say they have fewer solo shifts, and train crews have longer breaks at the end of each trip, meaning more time to use the bathroom, refresh, and prep for the train's next route. Those grace periods also mean that even if a train concludes a trip late, it still might be able to depart on time for the next one.

Even as they give credit to Knueppel and his railroad management team for reaching out to workers, representatives from both engineers and conductors unions noted they are in the midst of negotiating new contracts. The results could determine the course of the relationship between the railroad's top people and its workers.

"The set of managers that are in now, we're going to say we have a guarded optimism," Hill said. "It's definitely far better than it was, but it's nowhere near where it needs to be."